In my mission to watch every movie Roman Polanski has directed, sooner
or later I'd have to watch his least praised work. And What? may well
be considered his worst movie. The 1986 parody Pirates surpasses this
one quite easily. But Roman Polanski is such a good filmmaker, even his
worst efforts shine with talent, intelligence, and humor.
Allegedly based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the movie opens
with Nancy (Sydne Rome), a tourist traveling through Italian; as we
meet her she's about to be gang raped by a trio of sleazy Italians who
gave her a ride. But she escapes and enters a villa by the sea. She has
to take an elevator down to it, and it's up to the viewer whether this
underground journey represents Alice's falling down the rabbit hole or
a descent to hell.
Hell is perhaps too strong a word, but the villa Nancy finds herself in
is nevertheless populated by lost souls consumed by their fantasies,
perversions and excesses: there's the lady who strolls naked; the young
man who can't stop thinking about sex; the villa keeper always
complaining about arthritis but with a knack for piano; there's the
owner, Mr. Noblart (Hugh Griffith), who dies after asking Nancy to show
him her boobs and vagina. Then there's Roman Polanski playing Mosquito,
who's called that way because of his big sting, although it's not what
you're thinking about. And finally there's the real star of the movie,
Marcello Mastroianni, giving the movie's best performance as Alex, a
sado-masochist ex-pimp who likes to be whipped while dressed as a tiger
and doesn't mind abusing Nancy while dressed as a Navy admiral.
What? is indefinable: it has no plot, no logic, it flows like a dream
and makes as much sense as one. The characters' personality changes all
the time, the absurd is always intruding, and poor Nancy is caught in
the middle. The movie is full of bawdy humor, unapologetic sexism,
gratuitous nudity (as the movie progresses Rome finds herself with less
and less clothes until she's naked), and silly violence.
There are two types of strange in cinema: there's mainstream strange -
Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Charlie Kaufman: for some reason people find
these filmmakers difficult, complex, confusing, when in fact they make
a lot of sense by the end of the movie. But then there's the real
strange, the one that laughs at the childish simplicity of Gilliam and
Burton and Kaufman. In that group there are movies like Wojciech Has'
The Hourglass Sanatorium, Jaromil Jires' Valerie and her Week of
Wonders, David Lynch's Eraserhead and Dusan Makavejev's Sweet Movie.
Roman Polanski's movie belongs in this group.
It's not for everyone, which is a pity, for underneath the nonsense
there is a movie with a great sense of humor and beautiful